Robert Downey, Jr. can be forgiven for trying to make an ’80s drama about the tense relationship between a father and son since he clearly remembers when those movies were the norm in Hollywood.
The Judge pairs Downey with Robert Duvall as the aforementioned father and son. Downey more than holds his own with Duvall and the two have a believeable father-son chemistry.
Downey also served as executive producer and its the first film to be developed by Team Downey, his production company that he runs with his wife, Susan. The movie is directed by David Dobkin, from a script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
Hot shot defense attorney Hank Palmer (Downey) returns to his small town roots for his mother’s funeral and it’s clear from the moment he lands that it’s the last place he wants to be. His relationship with his father (Robert Duvall), who is also the town’s judge, is practically non-existent, and Hank wants to leave as soon as he arrives.
On the plane back to Chicago Hank receives word that his father has been picked up by the police for his possible involvement in a car accident that has left one person dead. Turns out the person is a former plaintiff from the judge’s past who killed a woman after serving a few months for an assault charge.
Hank’s determination to prove his father’s innocence forces the two men to hash out their differences and figure out a way to repair their damaged relationship. At one point the two men argue during a tornado. It seems Dobkin didn’t trust the dialogue to be compelling enough—he literally had to create a storm for dramatic effect.
Despite Downey’s best efforts, The Judge feels more like a rehash of the family dramas of the ’80s rather than a reinvention. Dobkin uses one too many shortcuts to convey emotion.
In addition to the tornado family argument, there is a scene earlier in the movie Downey dons an old Metallica shirt from high school and zips down a country road on his old bicycle, with his arms outstretched. There’s even a moment where he takes his young daughter out for ice cream and teaches her how to drive.
All the dramatic tropes make the movie feel old-fashioned and unsophisticated, which is a shame because the cast is incredibly talented and does great work. Although Vera Farmiga, who plays Hank’s high school sweetheart, is sorely underutilized.
Billy Bob Thornton is terrific as the prosecutor who has it out for Hank and Vincent D’Onofrio is wonderfully schlubby as Hank’s older brother. Jeremy Strong is the youngest Palmer brother, and happens to be developmentally challenged, but in a sweet way. In a departure from his usual smart-ass roles, Dax Shepard plays a bumbling defense attorney who also owns an antique store.
Unfortunately, all that talent cannot overcome the unoriginal choices Dobkin’s makes to tell this story.